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Native species, community engagement: Why there's more to planting trees than digging and watering

SINGAPORE: Ms Nutan Shah sent soil flying as her cangkul came down in swift, sure strokes on the forest floor. In the hole she dug, she carefully placed a sapling, then re-filled the gaps with earth. 

The final steps were to water the plant and leave a ring of dried leaves around it to act as fertiliser. It's hard work, but she has already planted about a dozen trees around Singapore and still can't get enough of this.

Ms Nutan Shah planting a tree at Thomson Nature Park on Oct 24, 2020. (Photo Chew Hui Min)

Ms Shah, who is in her 50s, said she felt "rejuvenated" as she worked up a sweat surrounded by trees. She's hoping that the trees will help reduce her carbon footprint and, in the long run, help lower the temperatures in Singapore.

"I call them community babies - because it's obviously a community effort ... but secretly within my household, I say I planted them," she laughed.

On Saturday (Oct 24) afternoon, Ms Shah, two other volunteers and this reporter planted 20 saplings in Thomson Nature Park - with some support from National Parks Board (NParks) staff and two landscaping workers.

We were not the only group planting trees there this weekend. Park visitors on their Sunday morning walk around the park may not notice, but there are 100 new young trees taking root in the park.

READ: Singapore to plant 1 million trees, develop more gardens and parks by 2030

That's just 0.01 per cent of the 1 million trees Singapore aims to plant over the next 10 years - an initiative announced in March this year by Mr Desmond Lee, then Second Minister for National Development. More than 60,000 trees have been planted thus far.

These trees will not only be in nature parks but will be found on streets and roadsides, along park connectors and in nature reserves. This will bring the number of trees in Singapore to more than 8 million.


Among the 10 species of trees planted on Saturday was the critically endangered nephelium maingayi, a hairless relative of the rambutan, which has fruit that are delicious to the rare Raffles' banded langur and other native wildlife.

The Raffles' banded langurs are one of the endangered native animals which call the nature park, as well as the Central Catchment Nature Reserve it borders, home.

READ: Sungei Buloh Nature Park Network to be established, includes new Lim Chu Kang Nature Park

The seeds of the nephelium maingayi were first collected from the Nee Soon swamp forest and like the other native species that were planted on Saturday, it was grown at the Pasir Panjang Nursery before being transported to Thomson Nature Park on Saturday for transplanting.

"They are all food plants for the Raffles' banded langur," said Dr Adrian Loo, NParks group director, as he rattled off the scientific names of all the trees and their various characteristics.

Dr Adrian Loo, National Parks Board group director at Thomson Nature Park on Oct 22, 2020.

It's part of NParks' plan that the animals who eat the plants will then help spread the seeds of the trees throughout the forest, he added.

At other sites, volunteers have planted trees from the legume family - which can convert nitrogen in the air to a form that can be absorbed by plants - thereby naturally fertilising the soil. 

The One Million Trees movement is not just a numbers game, he explained using these examples, there are multiple considerations when it comes to which trees to plant and where to plant them. 

READ: New central green corridor connecting East Coast Park and Changi Beach Park to be created: Heng Swee Keat

Thomson Nature Park, for example, used to be a village where the land was used for agriculture and there are many non-native plants, but volunteers and NParks staff members have been clearing invasive species from the area and planting more native species.

"What we want to do is to let it approach a primary rainforest ... to plant native plants so that they can support native species, and also support the conservation of native plants ... for example the hairless rambutan," said Dr Loo.

Dead leaves are piled around the young trees as fertiliser.

There will be other considerations for planting trees in urban areas or park connectors.


Just a few steps away from where I helped plant the 20 trees, is a plot of forest that has been adopted by the Jane Goodall Institute Singapore and where 10 volunteers were planting another 30 trees.

Last year, students and volunteers had already planted 80 trees at this plot of land.

The institute had plans to organise tree-planting trips for students and for them to collect data about the trees to track the trees' growth and involve the children in research work. But the projects have been "completely derailed" by the COVID-19 pandemic, said Ms Tan Beng Chiak, a teacher and member of the institute.

"There're so many species, you don't know what will actually do well and survive better here ... so I think it's a good learning process for everyone ... I hope that our children, and the students that we work with, will continue this legacy," she said.

IN FOCUS: How urbanised Singapore is learning to live with its wildlife

READ: New Pasir Panjang Park to feature elements of natural and cultural history

While student groups cannot return yet, a group of teachers and volunteers from the institute came on Saturday not just to plant new trees, but also to check on the health of the trees planted earlier. 

After planting the fresh saplings, the volunteers busied themselves clearing creepers and removing rubbish from the site which may interfere with the trees' development. NParks staff members said that after the plantings, they will also monitor the rainfall and may return to water the saplings if the weather has been dry.

Ms Aparna Upadhyay (left), Ms Vijayalakshmi Turnbull and Ms Nutan Shah fist bump after planting 20 trees at Thomson Nature Park on Oct 24, 2020. (Photo: Chew Hui Min)

Ms Shah, budding tree enthusiast, said that she has been tracking her trees through NParks' website, and all the volunteers said they will return to check on their trees. 

The slots to plant trees have been snapped up quickly and the agency is trying to add more slots, said Dr Loo.

"I have not met someone who said 'I hate this, this sucks', they'll be like: 'Wow, I want to do more of this'," he said. "They feel very proud because they planted a tree and they want to go back to that place and see how their tree grew ... Everybody has a stake in our greenery, in that sense."

Members of the public can sign up to plant trees at the TreesSG portal.

Source: CNA/hm


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